A Tale of Three Stones

An extra post today in response to a Write On Edge prompt. Who could resist Epitaphs? You can find the prompt here – posting day today!

Being a writer has many pluses, especially in this day and age.

Why, one’s business letters positively sparkle – look at Helene Hanff; and shopping lists simply trip off the page. I regularly send my husband off to the supermarket with a lighter step and a twinkle in his eye.

Indeed, this was how he made his first official pass at me, way back when: he wrote on an office lunch shopping list, which I was to take to the store : It read: “Half a pound of love and a packet of desire” and I was felled instantly.

One of the less publicised advantages of being a writer is that you can write your own epitaph.

And while this may not fill you with glee and anticipation, it is vital to remember the hash anyone else will make of it, if you delegate the sorry business.

You are bound to get someone who does not know their its from their it’s, and they’ll never get that perfect turn of phrase just right to send you off to eternity with the perfect strapline.

Emily Dickinson would agree. Hers reminds me of the “Just popped out to lunch, back in two ticks” notices I see in shop windows. It reads: “Called back.”

Trust an Irish genuis of a poet to write a really gothic musing on death. Yeats wrote ‘Under Ben Bulben’ in the closing stages of his life.The last three lines were dark, and dramatic, and as moody as Yeats could be.Perfect for his stone.

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!”

One day I shall visit his stone, preferably on a horse, just for the theatre of the situation.

But one of the gentlest geniuses England has ever seen chose to dispense altogether with the pallaver of poetry on a stone.

I have often sat next to him, his Cornish slate slab stalwart against the winds that blow off the Camel Estuary in Cornwall.

John Betjeman is buried next to a church which was buried too. St Enodoc, which lies at the ninth hole of a seaside golf course, was subsumed by the drifting sands from the 16th to 19th centuries. Eventually someone let a clergyman through a hole in the roof and it was brought back into action once more.

The stone sits contentedly in the graveyard as tourists potter in and out. The sound of the sea rebounds from its surface, which is inscribed not with mans words but a perfect celtic filigree pattern. The sun shines and children saunter in with their buckets and spades to take a look. The freezing gales lash and tourists continue to attend, with their raincoats and wellington boots.

John Betjeman dispenses with poetry on a stone, because poetry is all around him; the kind he loved.

The chatter and the slate and the wellingtons, the sand and the sound of the sea? They define him.

Picture source here


57 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Stones

  1. The last paragraph is so good, I read it 4 times.

    This makes me wonder what the writers I’ve met online, like yourself, would do for a last word. Maybe that would make a hell of an exercise.

    I liked it all. You touched a nerve.

    1. Thanks, Lance 🙂 And that’s a good question. Me, I’d take a leaf out of Betjeman’s book. When you loved people that much in life, and wrote about them that well: who needs last words. You just let the unwritten poem continue around you.

      Mind you, Cornish beach resting places are hard to find.

  2. Dickinson’s humor is an acquired taste, isn’t it?

    Then the office lunch-shopping list? And a church reclaimed by sand? Your connections are like treasure hunting.

    1. What is it that reminds me of Miriam Leiver from Sons and Lovers, about Dickenson? She is the antithesis of Betjeman with his pragmatic, concrete humour based on the everyday.

      Ah, that shopping list….a Casanova, I married….

      And one day, you should see St Enodoc. Magical.

  3. Lovely piece. I’ve always thought my epitaph would be “I lived life” in plain block letters. Not very poetic, but I hope it will fit by the time I’m through.

  4. Lovely.

    My children propose to send my ashes (or some of them anyway) up in a firework. No headstone for me!

  5. I love Phil’s list. What an entree!

    Tom gets in trouble with lists. He makes them and leaves them everywhere, which, means usually right where I am working and where he forgets them. His worst bit of trouble was many years ago and has to do with your subject here, Kate, in a roundabout way. A co-worker’s young wife passed away suddenly. Like Tom, she was a diabetic, and it was a diabetic cause that took her, leaving three young children. He felt terrible about it and wanted to console his co-worker. He stopped on his way home to work to pay his respects, then came home and was settling himself in, taking things out of his pockets, when his face turned pale, a few choice words came out of his mouth, and he buried his head in his hands. You see, he pulled a check for the family out of his pocket. It seems the wrong piece of paper went into the card left at the funeral home. It said, simply, “remember to go to Tony’s”.

    1. Carrie, hi, thanks for popping over:-) I’m in total agreement with you, actually. Did you check Earlybird’s method? Her children are planning to pack her into a firework…

  6. Graveyards and headstones can be a goldmine for geneologists looking for glimmers of ancestors long since departed.

    My favorite:

    “That’s all, folks!” ~ Mel Blanc (the epithaph is the trademark line of cartoon character Porky Pig, whose voice was provided by Blanc for many years)

  7. Adore this. I read it as a puzzle, and everything fits with a satisfying connection.

    I, too, muse over these final messages. And like you, I find the most inspiration is the lulling sound of the sea.

    That final paragraph is simply sublime.

  8. I never thought to piece together my epitaph! Hmmm I may start thinking of it now.
    This line is most intriguing to me … I have often sat next to him, his Cornish slate slab stalwart against the winds that blow

    1. Hi Gayletrini! Thanks for coming over to read. I have indeed often sat right next to Betjeman’s stone. For a while I lived just down the road, and St Enedoc’s graveyard was always a wonderful retreat. He died long before I moved down, but his poetry? Just perfect for the English people, and I suppose it makes him live on in my imagination at least.

  9. Many good stories could be evoked by a slow stroll through a graveyard.

    When I helped our Parish with the data base for the cemeteries, I was shocked to learn how, after years, the underground shifts, coffins deteriorate, roots grow and underground streams appear and subside. We gave one poor, innocent grave digger apoplexy when he dug what we thought was an unused plot. Clink! A body appeared.

    After a good counselling session with our rector, he left never to answer another ad from us.

    I’m left wondering if we know who’s under any of those headstones!

    1. 😀 What an entertaining thought, Amy! We’re all in the mix once we’re under the ground, and travel once more, if slowly. You do make me think of the London graveyards just before the Magnificent Seven cemeteries were built on the city’s outskirts. Chaos: far too many bodies, no one knew who was whom, people being packed on top of other people. We like to think we have our lives and deaths under control, but nature takes the reins sooner than we think 🙂

  10. I love Phil’s pass! No wonder you couldn’t resist him.

    Tell Phil the Hub’s planned epitaph (and I have had to swear to do it) is, ‘I’d rather be here than Old Trafford.’

  11. You know I love a cemetery and appreciate a good gravestone. For myself, though, I think cremation and a fling on the wind, no epitaph (or stone) necessary. I will enjoy being eternally elusive. 😉

  12. I love to walk through cemeteries and I think I mostly fixate on the dates…life’s duration. The names with shorter years of life make me wonder and ask questions. In truth I really would just like mine to say, “wife, mother, grandmother, friend.” I think that’s enough for me, actually! Probably at the end of my life I won’t be thinking about how clever I am. LOL! Debra

  13. Homebody that I am, I want to sit by that slab and feel the sea. And perfect Celtic filigree…yes. For words sometimes lose their weight over time.

  14. I have never been to a funeral, meaning a burial. Only to a memorial service, with open or closed coffin, and then a cremation. I thought hardly anyone is buried these days… obviously I am wrong.

    1. Ah, I was at one just last Summer, and we stood in a beautiful Cotswold graveyard amongst the old stones. It played havoc with the high heels of the more fashionable of our number: they sink straight through the turf. But it’s a lovely way to say goodbye, there under the trees in the shadow of an old church tower.

  15. This is just lovely; you’ve managed to provide me with information I didn’t know, something to muse over for the day (what shall I have on my grave?), and such an enjoyable read.

    The sun shines and children saunter in with their buckets and spades to take a look. The freezing gales lash and tourists continue to attend, with their raincoats and wellington boots.

    I just loved that section, because I like the idea of his grave being accessible to everyone, appreciated by children and tourists and admirers alike.

    1. Hi Angela! It’s a lovely spot, and is just that: a comfortable place for people to linger. Betjeman – a true poet for the English people – would have just loved it. If you are ever in that part of the world it’s a place to go and just be.

  16. And if the i-Gadgets have their way everything will be “it’s” (this particular auto-correction drives me to distraction)

    I love the “first official pass”, Kate – too lovely ( I still have a note from many years ago from my hubby which he typed on an office phone message slip – yes, with a typewriter, haha)

  17. What a great short story! You’ve totally brought the spot to life. (Been there, sat there…mused on the condition of his bear, which I understand he was buried with?) Also, the walk across the golf course is exhilarating, when they’re in play! 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your writing as time goes on. 🙂

    1. Casey, how lovely to hear from someone who has been to the place and experienced it first hand! You are so right about the golf course – trying to dodge the balls can be interesting! But what a place: one of the great Happy Places of the world. What a fortunate man to be buried – along with his bear- there.

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